Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later the National

1915 - The Big Nickel, later the National and then the Rio Theatre, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. On the marquee, "The Raid of the Human Tigers," starring William Clifford, Sherman Bainbridge and Phyllis Gordon, was playing and released in 1913. This movie was called a three-reel production
1915 – The Big Nickel, later the National and then the Rio Theatre, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E (Construction journal)

The Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later the National Theatre, was once located at 373 Yonge St (south of Gerrard St on the east side) in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto.

The Big Nickel Theatre

Built in 1913, architect John Wilson Siddall designed the Big Nickel Theatre. It cost $14,000 to construct the brick and steel “fireproof” building. The theatre’s main façade was faced with two colours of buff brick and featured decorative patterning. The entrance floor had white, green, brown, red, and black tiles with a mosaic big nickel in the centre.

Inside the entrance hall was a cigar store, the ticket office, and a ladies’ washroom. The 600-seat auditorium had a panelled and ornamented ceiling. The lower part of the walls was green burlap dado, while the upper portion was painted red. The theatre also had a mechanical (self-playing) organ with all the stops needed to create natural sounds and to “lend a touch of reality” to the movies.

National Theatre

About four years after The Big Nickel opened, the theatre was renamed the National. It remained the National Theatre until approximately 1940, when it became the Rio.

1948 - On the Rio Theatre marquee, "Violence," starring Nancy Coleman, Michael O'Shea and Sheldon Leonard and "Dick Tracy vs Cueball," starring Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys and Lyle Latell, were playing and released in 1947 and 1946, respectively
1948 – On the Rio Theatre marquee, “Violence” and “Dick Tracy vs Cueball,” were playing (Archives of Ontario RG 56-11)

The Rio Theatre

In 1945, Sam Ulster and his son, Ben, leased the Rio Theatre. Soon after, they purchased the building. The Rio was known in the industry as a “grindhouse.” Seven days a week, from 9 am until midnight, the theatre showed action flicks. In 1972, for $1, you could see a triple feature or “a trio at the Rio.”

In 1980, the theatre, with its sticky floor, needed work. Now with about 490 seats, the screen had an 18-inch hole in it. Plus, the ceiling was falling due to a leak about midway into the auditorium to the left of the aisle. Even knowing the roof could collapse, patrons sat in the roped-off section. This was just a part of the Rio’s atmosphere. An inspector was sent out to the theatre and was assured by the manager that repairs would be made.

The Rio Theatre started showing four and five movies for one admission price, but attendance declined. In 1991, the Ulster family made the difficult decision to sell the building to a developer.

Early 1980s - Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. On the marquee, "Dressed to Kill," starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen and "Champion of Death," starring Sonny Chiba, were playing and released in 1980 and 1975, respectively
Early 1980s – Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 618, Item 43)

The Rio’s colourful, poster-plastered facade has been immortalized in movies filmed on Yonge St. The great-grandson of Sam Ulster kept a vast collection of those edgy and evocative posters. The Ulster family also once owned the Ace Theatre and Embassy Theatre and were also partners in the 7 & 27 Drive-In.

After the Theatre

The former theatre became commercial space and home to Granada TV Rental and the Love Shop. A portion of the building was also Loft Cinemas. The building was demolished around 2019, and the land is part of the Concord Sky condo development.

Rio Theatre Photos

1915 - The Big Nickel, later the National and then the Rio Theatre, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. On the marquee, "The Raid of the Human Tigers," starring William Clifford, Sherman Bainbridge and Phyllis Gordon, was playing and released in 1913. This movie was called a three-reel production
1915 – The Big Nickel, later the National and then the Rio Theatre, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. On the marquee, “The Raid of the Human Tigers,” starring William Clifford, Sherman Bainbridge and Phyllis Gordon, was playing and released in 1913. This movie was called a three-reel production (Construction journal)
Circa 1915 - Looking southeast on Yonge St from south of Gerrard St during a military parade. Notice The Big NIckel Theatre, later The National and the Rio, once located at 373 Yonge St
Circa 1915 – Looking southeast on Yonge St from south of Gerrard St during a military parade. Notice The Big NIckel Theatre, later The National and the Rio, once located at 373 Yonge St (City of Toronto Archives, Ken Webster Fonds, Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 115)
1927 - Looking north on Yonge St from south of Gerrard St. Notice the National Theatre sign at the top centre right. The theatre was originally The Big Nickel and later the Rio, once located at 373 Yonge St
1927 – Looking north on Yonge St from south of Gerrard St. Notice the National Theatre sign at the top centre right. The theatre was originally The Big Nickel and later the Rio, once located at 373 Yonge St (City of Toronto Archives, Ken Webster Fonds, Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 115)
1948 - On the Rio Theatre marquee, "Violence," starring Nancy Coleman, Michael O'Shea and Sheldon Leonard and "Dick Tracy vs Cueball," starring Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys and Lyle Latell, were playing and released in 1947 and 1946, respectively
1948 – On the Rio Theatre marquee, “Violence,” starring Nancy Coleman, Michael O’Shea and Sheldon Leonard and “Dick Tracy vs Cueball,” starring Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys and Lyle Latell, were playing and released in 1947 and 1946, respectively (Archives of Ontario RG 56-11)
Date unknown - The concession stands in the lobby at the theatre. Notice Orange Crush was 7¢, and Eskimo Pies were 10¢ each
Date unknown – The concession stands in the lobby at the theatre. Notice Orange Crush was 7¢, and Eskimo Pies were 10¢ each (City of Toronto Archives, Ken Webster Fonds, Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 115)
Date unknown - The auditorium and screen at the theatre
Date unknown – The auditorium and screen at the theatre (City of Toronto Archives, Ken Webster Fonds, Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 115)
1950 - Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later The National, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. On the marquee, "Captain Boycott," starring Stewart Granger, Kathleen Ryan and Cecil Parker, was playing and released in 1947
1950 – Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later The National, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. On the marquee, “Captain Boycott,” starring Stewart Granger, Kathleen Ryan and Cecil Parker, was playing and released in 1947 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 19, Id 49385)
1950 - Looking northeast on Yonge St, between Dundas St and Gerrard St during subway construction. Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St. On the marquee, "The Shanghai Gesture," starring Victor Mature and Gene Tierney, was playing and released in 1941
1950 – Looking northeast on Yonge St, between Dundas St and Gerrard St during subway construction. Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St. On the marquee, “The Shanghai Gesture,” starring Victor Mature and Gene Tierney, was playing and released in 1941 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 381, File 72, Id 7302-2)
1950 - Looking northeast on Yonge St, between Dundas St and Gerrard St during subway construction. Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St in the Downtown Yonge area. On the marquee, "The Shanghai Gesture," starring Victor Mature and Gene Tierney, was playing and released in 1941
1950 – Looking northeast on Yonge St, between Dundas St and Gerrard St during subway construction. Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St in the Downtown Yonge area. On the marquee, “The Shanghai Gesture,” starring Victor Mature and Gene Tierney, was playing and released in 1941 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 381, File 72, Id 7302-3)
Circa 1953 - Looking east from Walton St towards Yonge St. From left to right: the Gerrard Building, the Yonge Street Mission Building, Bermuda Tavern, Downtown Shoes and a portion of the Rio Theatre, once located at 373 Yonge St
Circa 1953 – Looking east from Walton St towards Yonge St. From left to right: the Gerrard Building, the Yonge Street Mission Building, Bermuda Tavern, Downtown Shoes and a portion of the Rio Theatre, once located at 373 Yonge St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 380, Item 287)
Early 1970s - Looking northeast towards the Rio Theatre, once located at 373 Yonge St, during the Yonge Street Mall. On the marquee, "The Dirty Dozen," starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson and "Motor Psycho," starring Haji, Alex Rocco and Steve Oliver, were playing and released in 1967 and 1965, respectively
Early 1970s – Looking northeast towards the Rio Theatre, once located at 373 Yonge St, during the Yonge Street Mall. On the marquee, “The Dirty Dozen,” starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson and “Motor Psycho,” starring Haji, Alex Rocco and Steve Oliver, were playing and released in 1967 and 1965, respectively (Archives of Ontario RG 56-11)
Between 1970 and 1972 – Looking north up Yonge St at Gould St. Notice on the right Sam the Record Man, Steele Tavern, A&A Records, Zanzibar and the Rio Theatre
Between 1970 and 1972 – Looking north up Yonge St at Gould St. Notice on the right Sam the Record Man, Steele Tavern, A&A Records, Zanzibar and the Rio Theatre (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File312, Item 61)
1978 - Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later The National, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area. The Rio Theatre closed in 1991
1978 – Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later The National, was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area. The Rio Theatre closed in 1991 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 610, Item 32)
Early 1980s - Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. On the marquee, "Dressed to Kill," starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen and "Champion of Death," starring Sonny Chiba, were playing and released in 1980 and 1975, respectively
Early 1980s – Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. On the marquee, “Dressed to Kill,” starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen and “Champion of Death,” starring Sonny Chiba, were playing and released in 1980 and 1975, respectively (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 618, Item 43)
Early 1980s - Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. Notice next to the theatre, Sam The Chinese Food Man, the Pinball Arcade and Time Square Books-Magazines
Early 1980s – Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. Notice next to the theatre, Sam The Chinese Food Man, the Pinball Arcade and Time Square Books-Magazines (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 614, Item 35)
Late 1980s - Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. On the marquee, "Death Wish 4: The Crackdown," starring Charles Bronson, Kay Lenz and John P. Ryan, was playing and released in 1987
Late 1980s – Rio Theatre was once located at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E. On the marquee, “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown,” starring Charles Bronson, Kay Lenz and John P. Ryan, was playing and released in 1987 (City of Toronto Archives, Ken Webster Fonds, Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 115)
1991 - Looking southeast on Yonge St from south of Gerrard St in the Downtown Yonge area. The Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later The National, was once located at 373 Yonge St. Notice the Zanzibar Tavern a few doors down
1991 – Looking southeast on Yonge St from south of Gerrard St in the Downtown Yonge area. The Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later The National, was once located at 373 Yonge St. Notice the Zanzibar Tavern a few doors down (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Id 198)
1990s - Granada moved into the former Rio Theatre building at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area
1990s – Granada moved into the former Rio Theatre building at 373 Yonge St, south of Gerrard St E in the Downtown Yonge area (City of Toronto Archives, Ken Webster Fonds, Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 115)
2009 - Loft Cinemas and the Love Shop also occupied the former Rio Theatre building at 373 Yonge St
2009 – Loft Cinemas and the Love Shop also occupied the former Rio Theatre building at 373 Yonge St (Google Maps)
2022 - Looking northeast on Yonge St from Elm St. The site that was once home to the Rio Theatre is part of the Concord Sky condo development
2022 – Looking northeast on Yonge St from Elm St. The site that was once home to the Rio Theatre is part of the Concord Sky condo development
1914 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address of The Big Nickel Theatre listed under the operator Edwd Jackson
1914 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address of The Big Nickel Theatre listed under the operator Edwd Jackson (Toronto Public Library)
1918 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address of The National Theatre
1918 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address of The National Theatre (Toronto Public Library)
1940 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address and phone number of Rio Theatre
1940 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address and phone number of Rio Theatre (Toronto Public Library)
1991 - The Toronto Yellow Pages showing the address and phone number of the Rio Theatre
1991 – The Toronto Yellow Pages showing the address and phone number of the Rio Theatre (Toronto Public Library)
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